Dynamic Genetix (a Short Story)
From the television emitted the sound of a soothing, melodic female voice narrating a delightful array of images of adorable, wide-eyed pets.
"Dynamic Genetix, where nurture is nature." the voice intoned.
John hit the "off" button on the remote control before his son Simon overheard the commercial from where he was sitting in the kitchen, perched on a stool, helping his mother prepare supper. Whenever Simon saw the ad, he invariably launched into an exuberant outburst of chanting "I want it sooo much!" that generally induced headaches for both of his parents.
The package had arrived earlier today, but John didn't want Simon to know that just yet. It was going to be a big surprise.
The Mystery of DNA
A Genetix pet was a cutting edge luxury item, and purchasing one meant placing a significant strain on their financial budget, but John had finally capitulated with the caveat that the pet would be a family pet belonging equally to all three of them. The way the imprinting process worked, the pet's unwavering loyalty belonged to whomever initiated the hatching process, and the pet could be owned by one to four masters.
As John returned with the large parcel, Linda tousled Simon's fine blond hair and asked "what are you going to call him?"
"Smudgily!" proclaimed Simon.
John sighed. Resigning himself to the name, he began to open the package and lift its contents out onto the kitchen table. Carefully, he lifted out the incubator, the instruction manual, and, finally, an object that was carefully wrapped in Styrofoam and layers of bubble wrap -- a glossy iridescent egg that was nearly the size of their microwave oven.
"Incubate! Incubate!" Simon shouted.
"We need to read the manual first, Simon." John said.
Perusing the manual, which seemed to be little more than a brochure, John read aloud "Dynamic Genetix: Where Nurture Is Nature. You are about to welcome your own perfect biological companion into your home. Is it wrong for man to play God? Of course not!"
John wasn't sure if it was even right for God to play God, but his wife and son had finally convinced him (browbeaten him?) into agreeing to get a Genetix pet. People did seem to universally agree that these creatures were wonderful though. And how could they not be? They were designed to suit the differentiated needs of the individual consumers that purchased them.
"John, for Pete's sake, just hatch the thing!" Linda urged him.
Ignoring her, John continued to read.
"With a Dynamic Genetix pet, the owner chooses the moment of birth. By initiating the hatching process, the consumer can ensure that he or she is the first person the pet will encounter. More importantly, by providing just a small amount of genetic material during this process, the owner (or owners) ensures that the pet will "imprint," bonding to him or her as its central family member. From then on, its loyalty is assured. After the hatching process is complete, 'nurture' will do the rest. A Genetix pet develops based upon its physical, psychological, and spiritual interactions with its owner and environment."
This last part seemed a bit hokey and out of place to John for such a scientifically advanced product, but he shrugged it off and continued.
"The pet's physiological and behavioral characteristics develop based upon owner's traits and unconscious cues. The physical development of a Genetix pet is shaped by its owner's personality, social needs, and environment. The mature pet may look similar to a cat, a dog, a lizard, a monkey... the possibilities are limitless. The size, shape, texture, and temperament of a Genetix pet (referred to in the manual as its "specs") are all entirely dependent upon what will best suit its owner. A person who craves physical intimacy will generally wind up with an adorable little fluffy creature that wants nothing more than to cuddle all day. What if a pet owner is rarely home? No problem! Masters that are frequently away develop pets with independent personalities. A Genetix pet owner always gets the pet that is best for him or her. Even a pet's dietary needs are determined by what substances are plentiful in the environment shared with its owner. There is actually a documented case of a seamstress with a Genetix pet that exclusively eats discarded buttons and left-over shreds of fabric. "
Linda snatched the manual from John and skimmed ahead to the important parts.
"Ok, here's how to hatch it. It says to place the egg in the incubator, suspended in the emulsifier..." She looked around. "Oh, this gel, I guess." she said, peering in at the goop that was already inside the main cylinder of the incubator.
"Unwrap that egg, John." Linda said, gesturing toward the beautiful and mysterious orb. John picked it up and silently began to carefully remove the layers of protective packaging. The shell caught the light in a spectrum of rainbow colors as he turned it in his hands.
Linda returned her attention to the manual. "The owner or owners, one to four people, must place their thumbs on the prick strip," she paused, reading ahead so that she could summarize. "And then begin the gyro-gestation process by pressing the large red button on the top of the machine." Linda concluded triumphantly, tossing the manual aside.
John finished unwrapping the egg and placed it in the main tube of the incubator, gently nestling it into the emulsifier gel. Then all three of them placed a thumb on one of the four prick strips that bordered the sides of the machine. Linda slapped down the red button, and the magic began.
Simon winced and jerked slightly in his chair when the needle pricked his thumb, but he remained brave and did not pull his hand away. The family watched in fascinated silence as a drop of blood from each of them wound its way through tubing down into the clear emulsifier, tingeing it pink.
John was vaguely aware that this would have been a good learning opportunity about DNA with Simon, but since he did not feel qualified to explain what was happening, he skipped it.
The main chamber began to spin, its speed continuing to increase for several minutes until the whole family began to feel a bit nauseous from watching it. Then, abruptly, it stopped. Nothing happened for a minute. Simon began to squirm.
And then the first tiny crack appeared.
Infinite Genetix Possibilities
During the first few days of their new pet's life, the entire family was riveted to Smudgily as they watched his development (The family had decided that Smudgily would be a "he").
After Smudgily had emerged from his egg and eaten all of the fragments of his shell (the manual said that this was normal behavior and provided necessary nutrients for newborns), they had each cradled him in their hands for a few minutes, then swaddled him in a soft towel and settled him into a cardboard box as a bed.
Although Smudgily initially had tiny feathers, those sloughed off within the first twenty four hours, leaving behind soft, fine baby fur. His pattern seemed to change by the hour; he was sometimes spotted, sometimes striped, sometimes calico. But always cute. Almost painfully cute, with huge, wide eyes and a tiny pink nose. Linda snapped pictures almost constantly to document these changes and e-mailed them to all of her friends.
In spite of the initial misgivings he had entertained, John found himself growing quite fond of the little creature, and he could hardly contain his own curiosity about how Smudgily would develop. Although his prior experiences with the pets had been limited primarily to glimpses of a motley assortment of creatures that people walked in the neighborhood, he was increasingly fascinated by their potential for variation. He knew that Dynamic Genetix pets took on the dominant traits of their owners, but how they were manifested always seemed to be a surprise. For instance, one of his co-workers had a vibrantly colored land-dwelling pet that looked like a palm-sized jellyfish. It accompanied the woman to work and contentedly spent workdays snoozing in one of her desk drawers. John suspected that it even rearranged her pencils for her.
Simon was elated with his new pet and bragged about Smudgily to all of the other children at school. Within a week, however, he began to lose interest, returning his attention to television and video games.
John couldn't remember exactly when he first heard a report about a "monstrous" pet, but reports began to trickle in, rapidly gathering momentum and snowballing into a media hot topic. Apparently, although none of the pets ever attacked their owners, upon whom they were imprinted, these rogue pets seemed to consider anyone, or anything, else to be fair game. There were cases reported of Genetix pets dragging off and consuming other family pets, neighborhood children, and even the occasional mailman. During the height of the media's coverage, images of "monster" pets aired almost nightly on the evening news. One pet looked like a morbidly obese bunny rabbit with fangs and a taste for human flesh. One resembled a bloated cat with porcupine quills and skunk-like stink glands. One looked and acted like a giant leech, leaving any guests to its family home woozy and covered in sucker marks. Another was a three-headed, five-legged asymmetrical tabby that spat acid. And one apparently looked like a llama with an anus that opened like a flower and made a shrill whistling sound. The last one wasn't really ominous, but its owners did find the behavior unsettling.
So Ugly It's Cute...?
Meanwhile, Smudgily had begun to display a few unnerving traits of his own.
As he had matured, he had developed a couple of rather peculiar habits. For example, he preferred to sleep hanging from the light fixtures like a bat, and he had adopted a diet that consisted primarily of roaches and houseflies. While his proclivity for insects was actually quite convenient in terms of pest control, the family still couldn't help but find it rather gross.
Their pet's physical development had also taken a couple of unexpected turns. Smudgily was undeniably cute as a button; he had evolved into a long-haired bundle of plush silvery fluff that emitted a soft cooing sound when he was happy or asleep. Just looking at him was bound to elicit a heartfelt "awwww!" from even the most toughened curmudgeon. However, concealed beneath Smudgily's adorable veneer were razor sharp retractable claws and several rows of tiny, spiky shark-like teeth. Both John and Linda were baffled by these attributes; what function could they possibly serve?
These were small needling concerns, but they did leave John and Linda feeling uneasy. Unfortunately, all too soon their apprehensions proved to be well justified.
Shortly after Smudgily reached full maturity, John was alarmed to witness him commit a truly heinous act. While their beloved family pet was lazily sunning himself in the living room, he casually unlocked his jaws like a snake, opened his mouth to almost the full size of his body, and swallowed their cat, unsuspectingly sleeping in its bed, whole. The cat awoke in Smudgily's mouth, yowling fiercely, but she didn't stand a chance at that point. It all happened so quickly that it was over before John even really comprehended what he had seen. He stood, staring dumbfounded, in the doorway to the living room as Smudgily proceeded to prissily clean himself, licking what remained of their cat from his fur.
From then on, Smudgily intermittently displayed monstrous behavior. Most of the time, he was an endearing little angel who chirped sweetly. However, every now and then, he would open his mouth to its full cavernous size, revealing row after row of ghastly, jagged teeth, and devour, without conscience, anyone or anything upon which he could lay his paws. Other pets in their neighborhood had begun to disappear left and right, and neither John nor Linda was sure what they should say or do (or what their liability might be).
What could they do? In desperation, John built a pen so that Smudgily couldn't run free outside.
Simon, of course, seemed unconcerned by his pet's darker side. In fact, for him it served only as a topic with which to regale his friends with tales of how "wicked cool" Smudgily was. However, after Smudgily tried to digest one of his smaller friends, even he started to worry.
From across the country, reported cases of Genetix pet aggression continued to escalate, and Linda and John were at a loss for what to do.
"You know, I'm fond of that little monster..." John said, sighing.
"John!" Linda interjected, upset with him for referring to Smudgily so harshly.
"Well, that's exactly what he is, Linda." John reminded her firmly. "But I am fond of him. And Simon loves him so much..." His voice trailed off for a moment.
Resuming, he continued, "Although he's not dangerous to us, he is dangerous. If I hadn't grabbed him the other day, he would have swallowed Jordan."
"Simon's little friend?" Linda inquired in soft, trembling voice.
"Yes, Linda." John said somberly. Sometimes it seemed to him that Linda only saw what she wanted to see.
"Linda! Linda, come see this!" John called from the living room.
Linda emerged from the kitchen, wiping her wet hands on her jeans.
On the television, an impeccably dressed female news anchor continued to report, "Dynamic Genetix announced a recall today of all Genetix pets..."
A spokesperson for Dynamic Genetix appeared upon the screen. His round, balding head bobbed ever so slightly as he spoke his rehearsed statement.
"At this time, Dynamic Genetix Corporation is announcing a full recall of its pet line. Consumers may return these pets to any Dynamic Genetix retailer for a full refund."
"I do want to be clear, however, that this is in no way an admission of any fault or wrong-doing on the part of Dynamic Genetix Corporation. The cases reported in the media as 'defective' pets have been misrepresented. There is not a single documented case of defect."
There were murmurs of confusion among the crowd of journalists that were present in the room.
"I repeat, there are no documented cases of any defect with a Dynamic Genetix pet." the spokesperson reiterated. He took a deep breath and continued.
"These pets are working as advertised. They have assumed the traits of their owners. Unfortunately, a third-party consulting firm, which shall remain unnamed at this time, that Dynamic Genetix Corporation commissioned prior to product launch did not foresee in any of its models the possibility of pets absorbing murderous traits from their owners. Therefore, Dynamic Genetix proceeded in good faith to produce its high quality biological product."
The whole press room was abuzz by now. The spokesperson had to raise his voice slightly to ensure that he was heard over the noise.
"Although only a small number of pets have actually exhibited any negative attributes, for the sake of our customers, the company will accept, no questions asked, any returned Genetix pet for a full refund."
"This concludes Dynamic Genetix Corporation's official statement. Thank you." the man said resolutely, adjusting his tie.
The room burst into a cacophony of voices shouting questions.
"I will not be taking any questions." the spokesperson said loudly into the microphones at the podium. The din immediately became deafening.
"However," he added pointedly, triggering a momentary hush, "I will give you a concise summary as I personally see it. Dynamic Genetix Corp. has always maintained a quality product. However, it acted under the innocent assumption that pet owners would be essentially good. To be blunt, the company underestimated how rotten human beings can be."
With that, he turned and, without looking back at the ensuing bedlam, abruptly exited the room.
John and Linda both stared at the television in silence for several minutes after the report ended. According to the company, predatory physical characteristics and aggressive behavior in Genetix pets were directly attributed to a dark side inherent in the customers that owned them.
Neither one of them dared to look at the other.
After a very difficult conversation with their son, Linda and John returned Smudgily for "recycling" (this was the company's polite euphemism for euthanasia). They were far from alone in their decision to return their Genetix pet; in a panic of mass hysteria, close to a million pets were returned in the recall, most of which were completely sweet, loving creatures that longed for nothing other than the love of the owners that chose to have them "recycled."
John was having a great deal of trouble sleeping these days. He just couldn't stop wondering which member of his family was actually a monster. His wife was impatient, impulsive, and pig-headed. Could she secretly be a sociopath? Or was it his son? His dear little boy...Simon did seem callous a lot of the time, but he always had wanted to believe it was just due to his age....
Linda was a nervous wreck. She couldn't stop grinding her teeth and biting her fingernails. Her sex life with her husband had completely evaporated, but she didn't even care. She just couldn't stop wondering if John was secretly a monster. After all, one never really knows what goes on in another person's head. Maybe when John worked late, he was really picking up hitchhikers. He could be raping and murdering them. How would she know? Or could the monster be her son? Had something gone wrong in his development? She knew she shouldn't have had that occasional glass of wine during her pregnancy. Was his brain wired wrong? She had seen him pulling wings off of insects but had never told anyone. Would she be to blame if he turned out to be a killer?
Simon had begun to spend a lot of time alone in his room. He couldn't let his parents know that he knew. If they saw that he was afraid, it would be clear that he knew that one of them was a monster. Then whichever one it was would surely kill him. So he stayed in his room as much as he could, only venturing out for meals. His life had been reduced to little more than cowering in the shadows.
Simon couldn't be sure if it was his mother, who had a vindictive streak, or his father, who always seemed to have to be in control. If he knew with certainty, maybe he could have at least developed a plan. And, what frightened him even more, was the other thought he sometimes had -- if he were the monster himself, would he even know?